Black vs. Green Teas
Although some people think that black teas are "cooked" and greens are not, the reality is actually the other way around. There is a naturally occurring enzyme present in the tea plant that causes the leaves to turn dark brown or black after they are harvested. To keep a tea leaf green, therefore, requires heating the leaves to destroy the enzyme. In China, green teas are traditionally heated on a hot wok, while in Japan they are usually steamed. In Taiwan, where oolong teas are preferred, the oxidation process is allowed to begin before firing (heating), thereby creating a tea that is more or less half way between green and black.
Most people are surprised to find out that all true teas come from the same source and the differences in processing account for much of the variety. It is said that for more than two centuries, the Chinese were able to keep this secret from the early European traders, who didn’t know that that black and green teas came from the same plant.
The original tea plant, Camellia Sinensis Sinensis to you Latin fans out there, is principally native to Southern China, and tea has been made from its leaves for thousands of years. A close relative, Camellia Sinensis Assamica was found growing wild in India in the early 1800's and became the foundation plant for the huge Indian tea industry. Indeed, since the Assamica variety has somewhat larger leaves (therefore more tea) and grows faster, the Indian variety has been transplanted to most of the world’s tea growing regions even though the Chinese plant is more winter hardy.
Essentially an evergreen bush, tea can grow as high as thirty feet tall but when planted with harvesting in mind, is generally pruned to a height of no more than five feet or so to make picking easier. What we might call tea estates or plantations are generally referred to as tea "gardens," even if they cover hundreds of acres, which certainly sounds more romantic.
From three to ten times a year, depending upon soil and climate conditions, the new growth leaves are picked. This is still generally done by hand although some machinery is creeping in here and there. Once picked, the leaves go through several processes, including withering, rolling, oxidation and firing.
During the withering process, the leaves are spread out in the sun for several hours, just until they become flaccid. Green teas then go straight to firing. Black teas are rolled, usually in a machine these days, for thirty minutes or so to break up the leaves a bit and bring the juices to the surface. During oxidation, the leaves are exposed to the air and then darken, much as what would happen to a sliced apple if left exposed to air. After oxidation, the leaves are "fired," or heated up to stop this process and reduce the moisture content in preparation for packing.
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